Chopin at the Box Office

Discover the composer's impact on the movies and more, from Batman to video games

By Google Arts & Culture

Text: Mariusz Gradowski

LIFE Photo Collection

If we think about the presence of Fryderyk Chopin and his music in modern culture, we cannot omit cinematography. There are lots of Chopin’s traces in the movies.

Chopin himself

Let’s begin with the movies having Fryderyk Chopin as a protagonist. Besides documentaries (take notice of the one directed by Angelo Bozzolini), there are many fiction films telling the story of Chopin and his life.

Cinema Akil Nostalgic sofa seatings by Farel Bisotto @farelbisottoDubai Culture & Arts Authority

They span genres and can be artistic (The Blue Note by Andrzej Żuławski), nostalgic (Desire for Love by Jerzy Antczak), comedic (James Lapin's Impromptu) or historical and realistic, like Młodość Chopina's Chopin’s Youth. And let's not forget A Song To Remember, a true classic!

Grant, HughLIFE Photo Collection

The actors who played the role of Chopin include Hugh Grant, Czesław Wołłejko, Cornel Wilde, Piotr Adamczyk or – very interestingly – Janusz Olejniczak, a concert pianist himself. 

Glen Gould-Pianist (1956-03) by Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

Chopin’s original music

In films about Chopin, we can find many of his works, but they can also be heard in films where Chopin does not appear as a character.

Sometimes these are stories of pianists, whether virtuosos (as in Shine) or students (as in Lara). Chopin’s music is also often used in contexts outside of the world of music schools and concert halls. 

A Shot 2 (2020) by Chen ManSong Art Museum

It is used to build the mood (Mildred Pierce), characterize the heroes (Five Easy Pieces), express their emotions (Florence Foster Jenkins). Sometimes it acts as a kind of sound decoration (Combien tu m’aimes). 

One of the most important movies featuring Chopin’s original music is Roman Polański’s The Pianist, starring Adrien Brody. 

Still from a film featuring Chopin and George Sand (1945)Museum Celda de Frédéric Chopin y George Sand

Reworking Chopin

Some interesting examples of Chopin’s presence in film are those in which composers cite or rework his music. A key example is 'Toy Planes, Home and Hearth' from John Williams’s soundtrack to Empire of the Sun.

Batman (1966-01) by Yale JoelLIFE Photo Collection

William’s composition naturally and delicately becomes an arrangement of Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17, No. 4. There are many other examples: we can hear Chopin in Nelson Riddle’s soundtrack to the Batman series!

Jam Session (1943) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Such transformations adapt the feelings and associations carried by Chopin’s music into an original score which fits the scene.

Celebs at the Teatro (1970/1970)Massimo Theatre Foundation

Imitating Chopin

Chopin's music is often imitated on screen. His style was adapted, for instance, by Armando Trovajoli ('Chiara e fosca (Chopiniana)' from the film Passione d’amore) and Nino Rota (Mazurka from Il Gattopardo).

Mazurka, op. 50, no. 3 (1842) by Frédéric ChopinThe Morgan Library & Museum

Among Chopin’s favorite forms which can be found in the movies, there are many polonaises (Patrick Stump with Spell, Bronisław Kaper with The Glass Slipper). There are also quite many mazurkas (Dick Hyman in Moonstruck, Carlo Rustichelli in L’uomo, L’orgoglio, La Vendetta) and nocturnes (Gabriel Yared in The Lover, Maurice Jarre in Shogun).

 Of course, we cannot be entirely sure that Chopin was an inspiration here. Other composers wrote polonaises, mazurkas and nocturnes as well. However, Chopin is by far the best known of all of them, and the resemblance to Chopin’s style is striking. 

Hot Jazz (1940/1940) by Franz KlineChrysler Museum of Art

Disguising Chopin

There is yet another way that Chopin appears in the movies, and we can call it 'Chopin in disguise’. These are the jazz, rock, and electronic versions of his works, their fragments, often recreated as songs. 

Sometimes Chopin is disguised so well you might not even recognize him, as in I’m Always Chasing Rainbows (it appears in the series Mildred Pierce and also in Rose of Washington Square).

Handheld video game console:Nintendo Game Boy Pocket Console: Yellow (1996) by NintendoThe Strong National Museum of Play

Gaming Chopin

Chopin has not only become part of the world of cinema and television; the same goes for video games.

Grand piano Buchholtz, c. 1825-1826, copyThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

In this case, Chopin’s music appears in various forms. Sometimes we can hear original works (like Lang Lang recordings for Gran Turismo 5),  and sometimes Chopin becomes an element of a soundtrack (Peter Connely for Tomb Raider – Chronicles). 

Digital Video Game: PC FEZ (2013)The Strong National Museum of Play

Transcriptions of Chopin’s music are included in musical games of skill (O2Jam), and sometimes arranged in a completely new style (like a 'rock Funeral March' in Rocksmith 2014: Bachsmith II).

In Disasterpeace in Fez (Continuum), players can also become Fryderyk Chopin himself and save the world to the rhythm of his music (covered in different popular styles, of course). 

Photograph of Chopin's piano used for the filming of a movie (1933)Museum Celda de Frédéric Chopin y George Sand

Chopin Note for Note

From these examples (and many more!), it's clear to see that Chopin’s music plays a very important role in the world of cinema. While Chopin may be still waiting for his own Milos Forman and Amadeus, his music is well represented in the cinema.

Chopin (c.1900) by AnónimoMuseum Celda de Frédéric Chopin y George Sand

Besides, last but not least, there’s also a fun part of it: recognizing and naming pieces, themes, and motifs of Chopin in action movies or comedies or psychological dramas is real fun. Try for yourself!

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